Infection with varicella zoster virus, leading to chicken pox in susceptible hosts, is usually a benign self-limiting disease conferring immunity in those affected. Cardiac complications are rare, but when present may lead to severe morbidity or mortality.
We have recently encountered three children, all of whom developed significant cardiac complications secondary to infection with varicella. Myocarditis has long been associated with such infection. The pathological mechanism is presumed similar to other cardiotropic viruses, where both direct cytopathic and secondary auto-immune effects contribute to myocardial cellular destruction and ventricular dysfunction. Complications include arrhythmias and progression to dilated cardiomyopathy.
Pericarditis, and secondary pericardial effusion, related to infection with the virus is most commonly associated with secondary bacterial infiltration. Both cardiac tamponade and chronic pericardial constriction may result.
Endocarditis complicating varicella has only been described in the last fifteen years, and is associated with the emergence of virulent strains of both streptococcus and staphylococcus, the two organisms most commonly associated with endocarditis. The exact mechanism by which varicella causes secondary bacterial endocarditis remains unclear.
Whilst cardiac complications of infection with the varicella zoster virus are rare, the resulting complications are potentially life threatening. Evidence of varicella-induced carditis must be aggressively pursued in any child with signs of acute cardiac decompensation in whom chicken pox is confirmed or suspected.